How Democracies Die

David Goodman
9 min readJun 23, 2020

Harvard Prof. Steven Levitsky on two nightmare scenarios for the U.S.

Photo by Gage Skidmore / Creative Commons

Is our democracy in danger?

So begins How Democracies Die, the 2018 New York Times bestselling book by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The authors have studied the collapse of democracies in Latin America and Europe. As they look at the U.S. under Donald Trump, they see ominous warning signs. The book, despite being several years old, reads like an unsettling roadmap to current American politics.

I recently spoke with Steven Levitsky on The Vermont Conversation, the public affairs radio show that I host; you can listen to our discussion here. Steven Levitsky is Professor of Government at Harvard University. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Goodman: You begin How Democracies Die with a question: is our democracy in danger? What is your answer to that today?

Steven Levitsky: I think it is. The events in the two years since have only reinforced those fears. The Trump administration has been a little bit worse than we expected. Looking back at the book, we were slightly optimistic.

This does not mean that we are on the verge of fascism or even that we’re on the verge of autocracy. But I think our democratic institutions as they exist are being seriously challenged and are at serious risk of crisis. You can slide into a democratic crisis and fall into a period of instability without consolidating an authoritarian regime. But we face a real threat to our democracy.

I don’t think of How Democracies Die as being overly optimistic. What were you too optimistic about?

The Republican Party. We stated that when we look forward, we expected that a faction of the Republican Party, especially in the Senate, would act as a constraint on Trump. We did not foresee the rapid and total Trumpization of the Republican Party. We expected that the establishment Republicans, the relatively moderate Republicans in the Senate, would stand up to Trump and kind of draw a red line. And that didn’t happen. In fact, every Republican who stood up to Trump saw his or her political career ended. And because of that the entire party fell in line. That raises the danger to a new level.

David Goodman

NYT bestselling author. Journalist. Skier. Host, The Vermont Conversation podcast at